Thursday, July 21, 2011

Tramonto's Game Changer

Operation H.O.T. Trailer from Christopher Shepherd Films on Vimeo.

Restaurant R'evolution recently had the great blessing to be part of a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I traveled, along with Chef Fred Heurtin of Chef John Folse & Company, to the Bagram Airfield military base in northeastern Afghanistan, as part of Operation H.O.T. (Honoring Our Troops), a large-scale show and dinner for 5,000 U.S. Army and Air Force troops.
Going into an active war zone was never on my personal bucket list. Operation H.O.T. was the brainchild of Chef Charles Carroll of River Oaks Country Club in Houston, who is a close friend of both John's and mine. We've known each other for years because he invited me to participate in the annual culinary events held at the club. Charles is an incredibly special person -- a motivational speaker and author in addition to being a well-respected chef -- and he had wanted to do something to give back to our troops, ever since John invited him to go to Afghanistan a few years back to feed the troops. That trip unfortunately fell through, but ever since, it remained in the back of his mind. A year ago, Charles was having a beer with his friend Chief David Longstaff, a high-ranking Army official, and he was telling him this pipe dream, and he said he could help make it happen, as he is in charge of all the food that gets delivered to the troops in the Middle East bases.

 One member of River Oaks, and a very good friend of Charles's, is Joanne King Herring. Joanne is a passionate civilian activist who has worked for decades to improve conditions for our troops abroad and to create change in war-torn areas through providing services and education. She was protrayed by Julia Roberts in the movie "Charlie Wilson's War," and also offered a lot of support and enthusiasm to make the trip happen.
Rick Moonen and me in our body armor

So, after an event that Charles and I did together last year, he began calling people and asking them what their interest was in putting together an old-school, USO-style event with performers, a special "taste of home" meal, and video messages for the troops. For part of the show, he wanted to integrate an "Iron Chef"-style cooking competition, so he called Chef Rick Moonen and me. We were both hesitant at first, but with some time and consideration, I finally decided that not only was it possible, but that I had to do it. Because I’m not a child of war, I’ve never been directly affected by war the way that so many Americans have, so I really didn’t have the appreciation for what it's all about. I knew that for me, going to Afghanisgan would be an eye-opening, game-changing experience. If only I could have realized just how much so.

The trip was over a year in the making, with Charles and his assistant, Hilmi Ahmad, working on it seven days a week for the final six months. It took that long just to obtain the necessary level of military security and clearance, coordinate the logistics and paperwork, and raise the $178,000 it took to make it happen. The idea was to bring a taste of home to the troops. We would be cooking for 5,000 troops of a base of 30,000 – the rest were all in active duty while we were there. Charles’s vision was to give them 5 or 6 hours off to feel like they were at home. Many of the troops came from the South – Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas – so we thought we’d do a taste of the South with BBQ, gumbo, étouffée, the whole works.

We all flew into D.C. from various parts of the U.S., and we had a debriefing with Chief Longstaff. He was our leader, so he flew in to escort us from Washington to Kuwait, where we spent six hours in a barracks, changed into the body armor and helmets we'd wear for the rest of the journey, and then hopped on board a cargo plane from Kuwait to Bagram. We had to fly in the middle of the night for security reasons, sitting in jump seats around the sides of the cargo plane, with tanks and Humvees in the center. There were no bathrooms, no drinks, nothing for six and a half hours. All told, it took us two and a half days to get from the U.S. to the base in Afghanistan that would be our home for the next three days.

When we finally arrived, we showered, ate, and started prepping. John's manufacturing company air freighted tons of donated food over for the event, and there was Gulf seafood that was donated by the Louisiana Seafood Promotion & Marketing Board. It was incredible to see how they provide food to serve 30,000 troops every day. There are contractors there who handle the cooking, and literally miles of refrigerated storage. It made me glad to see that these guys are fed really well, with hearty meals, fresh fruit, and even a salad bar.

So when we go there we got all set up for the show. The tour production company putting the show together had shipped all of their gear there, and they were all setting up their stage. There were comedians, impersonators, magicians, a hypnotist, and even a U2 cover band to make it feel like a big festival. Rick's and my "Iron Chef"-style cook-off would be just part of an 8-hour show designed to bring a piece of home to the troops and take their minds off of battlefield life for a brief window of time.
The "Iron Chef" battle between Rick Moonen and me

 The theme for our "Iron Chef" battle was “Battle MRE,” which refers to the dehydrated food packs (Meals Ready to Eat) that the troops take into combat with them. We had to use the MRE packs as part of our recipes. We did a 60-second “quick-fire” challenge with Gulf seafood. Then we got interviewed and went into the battle itself. I made a crab pasta, incorporating the spice packets and the beans from the chili with beans from the MRE pack in the pasta. The troops were so enthusiastic about the battle, cheering us on. It was so much fun.

Joanne King Herring with Julia Roberts
(Photo credit:

Charles had gotten video messages recorded by every living president, as well as several celebrities (including Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts, of "Charlie Wilson's War"), all thanking the troops for their sacrifices in defense of the country. Those videos were screened between the various show acts, and you could see how much they meant to the troops. The first message, which Charles played to open the show, was from Joanne King Herring herself. He wanted to show the troops that there are civilians back home working on their cause, too. He introduced her as the hardest-working civilian for the military. As I write this, there are shovels down in Afghanistan due to her efforts, and they’re building the first self-sustaining village in the country, with food, water, jobs, and medical care. She’s been the one driving that project from day one – a mission to fight the war without guns. The village is being built with the help of the Navy and Marines, and if this takes off, then the government will throw its support behind it and help it grow. It was clear how touched the troops were. They even recorded a video message back to Joanne, yelling "We love you, Joanne!"

Charles also brought gifts for the troops -- everything from candy, t-shirts, knives, and suntan lotion, to these beautiful white polished rocks in leather bags. The rocks were meant to serve as a symbol of solidarity with people back home. Charles gave a wonderful speech about how these rocks came with love and prayers from home and were meant as a source of support and memories. He wanted them to signify this special day long after we were gone.
Signing the missile on an F-16.

There were enough poignant and unforgettable moments to fill 10 blog posts, but I'll just mention a few. We had the chance to visit a military hospital, where they treat the soldiers who do all of the F-16 fighter plane runs, and met soldiers who had been injured in battle. We saw the war room where the generals met to plan the Bin Laden assassination. We stood on the flight lines with the F-16s and wrote on the missiles, which is a military tradition. We were presented with an American flag by two soldiers who had flown it in battle for us. We learned through first-hand experience that for every soldier who falls in battle, everyone on the base goes out to the main road and stands at attention as the bodies are loaded into planes and flown home.

The Operation H.O.T. team in our body armor

I initially had misgivings about this trip, but by the time we all got home, the only thing every single person said was, “When can we go back?” It was life-changing for all of us. A few days after our return was when President Obama began to announce the pull-out of some of the troops from Afghanistan, and so everyone is saying we should go to Iraq if there are still troops in Iraq next year. We’re hoping that the two-hour movie that filmmaker Christopher Shepherd shot of the trip will be a tool we can use to help raise the funds to do it again. We’ll be screening it at River Oaks on August 8 for everyone who took part in the trip, plus the donors who put up the money and helped us get there. Everyone will tell you that this show was different from any other show that's ever been undertaken at a military base abroad. We were there for three days, immersing with them and getting involved in the culture of the base. We really wanted to make a difference in their lives, not just put on a show. I hope we succeeded. All I know is that this trip changed the game for me, forever.

God bless.

- Rick